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The Peak: Mt. Mitchell

Enjoy solitude and fixed-rope scrambling on the East's highest mountain.
mitchell-Blackley_445.jpgBeast of the East: Mt. Mitchell is the left-most peak. (Pat & Chuck Blackley)

Bagging the highest point of the Appalachians is reason enough to hike up 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell. But the frequent views over the Blue Ridge is the reason you’ll want to do it again. A billion years ago, colliding tectonic plates jacked Mitchell to Rockies-like heights—then eons of erosion scoured it down. Today, this area is home to one of the East’s most grueling and people-free (especially October to May) hikes. The two-day point-to-point ramble over a succession of 6,000-foot peaks on the 12.5-mile Black Mountain Crest Trail is the best (but not the shortest) summit route.

Set out with a day’s worth of water (three liters; there’s no springs until Deep Gap at mile 8) from the Bolens Creek trailhead at SR 1109 near Burnsville; climb from 3,075 feet to Celo Knob at mile 3.7. Hike the short side-trail to pay-dirt views of Linville Gorge’s jagged rim and Roan Mountain’s rolling balds. Continuing south, the route gets hairy: You’ll traverse a knife-edge ridge, climbing and diving using trail ropes. Gain Horse Rock’s weather-beaten summit, roll up 6,224-foot Gibbs Mountain (via a short bushwhack through laurel), and climb ropes on the class 3 scramble to Winter Star’s 6,212-foot summit. Next, the trail drops through wind-stunted spruce and Fraser firs, and down Deer Mountain’s steeps to Deep Gap (5,720 feet). Camp on the grassy col and descend .25 mile (and 500 vertical feet) on the Colbert Ridge Trail to a reliable spring.

Next morning, resume the roller-coaster trek with an 800-foot climb out of camp. You’ll tiptoe along a carved-out cliff edge on Potato Hill, and feel the breeze over Cattail Peak, Balsam Cone, Big Tom, and 6,648-foot Mt. Craig. From here, the trail widens and in another mile you’ll emerge from a tunnel of fragrant spruce to a parking lot. A .5-mile spur delivers you to the summit of Mt. Mitchell and views of famously blue ridges receding like solid waves.

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